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  • Hip-Hop Culture

Hip Hop: A Culture of Vision and Voice

Hip Hop is global, lapping on every shore and landing at every airport. But what does  Hip Hop  mean? Is it the music with a chest-thumping beat? The rapid-fire lyrics rapped into a handheld mic? Gravity-defying dance steps? Writers turning walls into canvases with larger-than-life letters and illustrations?

Lesson Content


DJ Tony Tone and DJ Kool Herc, 1979 © Joe Conzo  

DJ Kool Herc is credited with throwing the switch at an August 1973 dance bash. He spun the same record on twin turntables, toggling between them to isolate and extend percussion breaks—the most danceable sections of a song. It was a technique that filled the floor with dancers who had spent days and weeks polishing their moves.  The effect that night was electric, and soon other DJs in the Bronx were trying to outdo Herc. It was a code that has flowed through Hip Hop ever since: 1) Use skills and whatever resources are available to create something new and cool; 2) Emulate and imitate the genius of others but inject personal style until the freshness glows. Competition was, and remains, a prime motivator in the Hip Hop realm. Like a powerful star, this dance-party scene quickly drew other art forms into its orbit. A growing movement of hopeful poets, visual artists, and urban philosophers added their visions and voices by whatever means available. They got the word out about what was happening in their neighborhoods—neighborhoods much of mainstream, middle-class America was doing its best to ignore or run down. Hip Hop kept coming, kept pushing, kept playing until that was no longer possible. Today, some Hip Hop scholars fold as many as six elements into Hip Hop culture. They include:

From its work-with-what-you-got epicenter in the Bronx, Hip Hop has rolled outward to become a multibillion-dollar business. Its sounds, styles, and fashions are now in play around the world. DJs spin turntables in Sao Paulo, Brazil. MCs rap Arabic in the clubs of Qatar. B-boys and b-girls bust baby freezes in Finland. Graffiti rises on the Great Wall of China. Young poets slam poetry in D.C. So what is Hip Hop? All of the above and more—whatever we love enough to bring.

The Evolution Of Hip Hop [1979-2017]

Breaking: The Dance Style of Hip Hop

breaking-dance-style-169 (1).jpg

Richard Colón was just 10 when his cousin took him to his first schoolyard bash in 1976. “Ah, I was just blown away,” he says in Jeff Chang’s history of Hip Hop,  Can’t Stop Won’t Stop . “I just saw all these kids having fun...checking out the whole scene, and it was my first time watching the dance with the music being played...I just immediately became a part of it.”

He soon became a  big  part of it. By his early teens, the boy now immortalized as “Crazy Legs” became a trendsetter for breaking—a dance revolution still popping, locking, and rocking the world.

Making a B-line from the Bronx

As Hip Hop culture rose from the streets of the Bronx, breaking spun up and stepped out from the concrete itself. Early b(reaker)-girls and b-boys like Crazy Legs and his Rock Steady Crew earned their skills on that hard ground, admiring each other’s cuts, bruises, and “battle scars” as they pushed one another to evermore audacious displays of style and guts.

In keeping with Hip Hop’s ethic of improvisation, breaking is often a create-on-the-fly dance style. It mixes super-quick footwork with body-torquing twists. Robotic movements flow into smooth whole-body waves before dropping into acrobatic leg flares that suddenly halt in mid-spin freezes that seem to defy gravity. Breaking is the ultimate 3-D dance—flipping high, spinning low, and putting a premium on physical imagination and bravado.

Getting on the Good Foot

Breaking has copied from many dance styles to generate this uniqueness. These styles include the Charleston from 100 years ago that loaned its characteristic leg kick and arm swing as a top-rocking move. The ad-libbing of the Lindy Hop, popular from the 1920s on, also lives in breaking’s style. For individual inspiration, though, no one can best soul singer James Brown. His high-energy dance moves in the 1960s and 70s have inspired b-boys and b-girls ever since, and his song “Get on the Good Foot” is one of breaking’s early anthems. Tap, steppin’, ballet, disco, and modern all continue to contribute.

Breaking has rummaged beyond the dance floor and stage to find many of its most dramatic moves. The whirling torsos and legs of gymnasts on the pommel horse are seen in leg flares, for example. Down-rocking reflects techniques from gymnastic floor routines.The world of hand-to-hand combat has also provided inspiration for b-boys and b-girls. Hip Hop scholars often link breaking with  capoeira , a martial arts dance with roots in Angola and Brazil that displays acrobatics, grace, and power. A full-blown showdown makes it clear why breaking contests are referred to as “battles” as dancers mix dance moves with shadow kicks, leg sweeps, and fake attacks in the faces of the competition.

Breaking is much more than a sum of moves from various dances and disciplines, though. It is a living, breathing art form unique every time dancers take their turn in a cypher (see sidebar). Through the years the Rock Steady Crew, the Mighty Zulu Kings, the Lockers, the Electric Boogaloos, and thousands of other individuals and crews have continuously renewed and refreshed the style with original spins, fresh freezes, and new twists on power moves—often laced with body-bending humor. Competition and innovation in breaking—as with all things Hip Hop—is essential and inspired, and today its style inspires wherever people dance.

Flying Legs Crew: Kings of New York

Hip Hop Vocabulary

B-Terms to Know

The basic vocabulary of breaking—Hip Hop’s dance style include:

popping  fluid movements of the limbs, such as moving arms like an ocean wave, that emphasize contractions of isolated muscles  locking  snapping arms or legs into held positions, often at sharp angles, to accent a musical rhythm  top-rocking  fancy footwork performed upright  down-rocking  dance moves performed on or close to the ground  up-rocking  martial arts strikes, kicks and sweeps built into the dance steps often with the intent of “burning” an opponent  power moves  acrobatic spins and flares requiring speed, strength, and agility  freeze  sudden halt of a dance step to hold a pose, often while balanced on a hand, shoulder, or head  cypher  group of b-boys/b-girls taking turns in the center of the dance floor

DJing: The Artist at the Turntable


DJs are the soul behind the beat that pleases, surprises, and puts people on the dance floor. The best DJs have an almost mystical sense of mood at a party or club. They sense the right moment to cue the right song using the right technique to take the party where it’s ready to go. It is that insight, a passionate knowledge of music, and technical know-how that make DJing one of the pillars of Hip Hop culture.

Working the Sound System

A DJ’s sound system is a laboratory for making music magic. Twin turntables are standard, allowing the DJ to switch easily between songs, or spin and manipulate records in tandem to create effects or unique musical combinations. The turntables are wired to a receiver, amplifier, and earthquake-causing speakers. The DJ may use headphones to cue up the next song or song segment as the current music plays. Then he or she uses a mixer, or fader, to make transitions from one turntable to the other—hopefully without missing a beat. Today’s DJs often incorporate digitized and computerized components, as well. But most Hip Hop purists frown on DJs who button-push preprogrammed playlists. Hip Hop culture saves its greatest praise for inspired improvisation.

Before the rise of Hip Hop, the DJ’s basic role was relatively simple—spin records at a party, club, or on the radio. DJ Kool Herc’s keen observations changed that game. He noticed the energy on the dance floor went off the charts during the “breaks” of songs. Breaks are the instrumental sections in many pop and rhythm & blues numbers that highlight percussion and rhythm.

Herc experimented with methods to extend these sections by playing the same record on both turntables, a technique refined by fellow pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash. With needle-fine timing, they switched back and forth between the turntables to multiply the break. Crowds, especially dancing b-boys and b-girls, couldn’t get enough. Since the beginning, Hip Hop DJs have been instrumental in channeling youthful energy away from trouble and toward creative fun.

Good DJs constantly explore ways to pleasantly shock their audiences. They may give people the songs they expect, planning out smooth transitions by matching beats and musical keys from one number to the next. They also innovate by listening for songs within songs, lifting and linking snippets to take the music somewhere new.

In the never-ending quest to distinguish their mix, DJs often haunt used-record stores. They are on the prowl for long-lost songs or sounds they can make new again through the magic of Hip Hop. Legendary DJ and all-around Hip Hop luminary Afrika Bambaataa is famous for creating sets that spin from the Pink Panther theme to Kraftwerk to calypso to speeches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. All that is good from the past and present has a place at the Hip Hop turntable.

Scratching and Turntablism

As part of the Hip Hop style of life, DJs are constantly experimenting to set themselves apart from competition. One technique DJs embraced is scratching. To scratch, the DJ physically manipulates the record beneath the needle. Grand Wizzard Theodore stumbled on the technique in the mid-70s. He was a young teen blasting his music when his mom scolded him to turn it down. He fumbled the needle, liked the effect, practiced it, and began using it in shows. Other DJs quickly added scratching to their repertoire as a way to inject more personal style into the music flow.

More recently, turntablism has become an astounding source of new style. It involves extensive real-time sampling from spinning records to create something funky and fresh. Watching an experienced turntablist create in real time is an awe-inspiring experience.

Kool Herc "Merry-Go-Round" technique

DJ-Terms to Know

The basic vocabulary of  DJing —Hip Hop’s music style include:

back spinning  turntable technique that quickly “rewinds” a section of a recording beat juggling  manipulating two or more recordings to create a unique musical arrangement beat matching  following a song with another that uses an identical or similar rhythm break , or  breakbeat  instrumental section of a song that emphasizes percussion and rhythm cue  positioning a recording to play at a specific point DJ  short for “disc jockey,” a person who plays recorded music for an audience drum machine , or  beat box  electronic device used by DJs to synthesize drum beats looping  replaying a section of a song to extend it sampling  lifting a section of a recording and using it in a different number or recording scratching  technique of physically manipulating a recording to create a unique effect turntablism  live and extensive manipulation of recordings to create a unique song

MCs: Masters of Rhythm, Rhyme, and Flow


Today, MCs like Jay-Z, MC Lyte, and Kendrick Lamar fly high profiles in the world of Hip Hop. But that wasn’t always the case for the poets of the microphone.

In Hip Hop’s early years, its music scene focused on the disc jockey and the dance floor. The MC—short for “master of ceremonies”—was often a kind of sidekick to the DJ. In  Yes Yes Y’all , an oral history of early Hip Hop, Grandmaster Caz describes the rise of MCing this way: “The microphone was just used for making announcements, like when the next party was gonna be, or people’s mom’s would come to the party looking for them, and you have to announce it on the mic.”

Before long, though, MCs wanted to showcase their own talents. Grandmaster Caz continues: “Different DJs started embellishing what they were saying. I would make an announcement this way, and somebody would hear that and they add a little bit to it. I’d hear it again and take it a little step further ’til it turned from lines to sentences to paragraphs to verses to rhymes.”

More and more, MCs earned the right to grab the mic using freestyle skills to entertain and command a live audience. A “master of ceremonies” might make all the needed announcements; but the job of an MC then and now is to guide everyone’s good time with their energy, wit, and ability to interact with people on the floor. And good MCs don’t just demand the mic—the audience honors their skills by demanding they take it.

Rappers emerged as a somewhat distinct group as rap gained commercial success. They were the voices and characters that created and sold the records. In some ways, the talents and responsibilities of rappers overlap with MCs, and an MC might also rap. The interaction with the audience is the big difference.

In 1979, a trio of MCs rapped over the break from Chic’s “Good Times.” The result was The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” rap’s first hit. Three years later, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five released  The Message , a funky but unblinking account of hard times in an inner-city neighborhood. As the 1980s unrolled, MCs and rappers rose rapidly from second fiddles to big dogs including Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Run DMC, and Public Enemy. They created personas, cooler-than-life characters that might be super-smooth or gangland tough. They boasted about their style and talents and made sure to honor the DJ. MCing and rapping went from sideshow to main event as one of Hip Hop’s essential elements.

Hip Hop’s Rapping Poets

An MC or rapper’s “flow” is crucial to his or her performance. The flow is the combination of rhyme and rhythm to create the rap’s desired effect: fluid and soothing to communicate romance, for example; staccato and harsh to signal anger and conflict.

Before Hip Hop and rap took hold in the United States, spoken-word poetry occasionally worked its way into jazz performances. Many history-minded rappers also connect their art to The Last Poets, a Harlem-based group, and The Watts Prophets out of Los Angeles. Both emerged in the late-1960s and paired political poetry with improvisational jazz. Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” resembles rap before it got the name.

Increasingly, students of Hip Hop culture recognize the best MCs as accomplished formal poets. They rap complex rhyme schemes, most built on a rock-solid four-beat rhythm, or meter. But again, a good MC surprises audiences with syncopation and other off-the-beat techniques. Hip Hop aficionados reserve special respect for MCs with freestyle skills—the ability to improvise fresh rhymes while standing in the heat of the spotlight.

The Sugarhill Gang - Rapper's Delight

MC-Terms to Know

The basic vocabulary of  MCing —Hip Hop’s vocal style:

end rhyme  rhyming words at the end of lines flow  a rapper’s vocal style freestyle  improvised rapping griot  (gree-OH) oral storytellers and historians of West Africa internal rhyme  rhyming words within the same line MC  short for “master of ceremonies”; also performer who uses rap techniques to interact with an audience meter  rhythm of a poem persona  character assumed by a performer rap  spoken-word lyrics performed to a beat; one of the elements of Hip Hop rapper  performer that rhymes lyrics to a rhythm spitting  speaking, performing a rap syncopation  shifting a rhythm away from the normal beat

Writing: Graffiti and Hip Hop Culture


One element of Hip Hop predates the music and dance scene itself—graffiti writing, or simply  writing  as the artists themselves call it. But it blossomed at the same time the music and dance scenes were finding their feet, and its wild and color-outside-the-lines improvisational style were influenced and inspired by the desire to create something new and fresh.

Graffiti has been around since humans first painted, etched, or carved on rock walls. But urban youth put a new spin on it in the 1960s. In 1967, a Philadelphia teen named Darryl McCray spray painted his alias “Cornbread” wherever he could reach on walls and trains. (He was striving to impress a girl named Cynthia.) In 1968, the budding art form made the jump to New York City. The names JULIO 204, TRACY 168, and TAKI 183 became familiar sights here, there, and increasingly everywhere.

Writing’s Heyday

The number and talents of writers spiked in the mid-1970s as Hip Hop’s competitive drive kicked in. They added illustrations and second colors to outline stylized bubble and block lettering. The writers—many if not most of them young teens—jumped the limits of size, complexity, and color. Their finest designs seemed to bring life to whatever they graced. They called it  wild style —and it was.

They also jumped over fences, sneaked into subway tunnels, and trespassed in nighttime yards where subway cars slept. There, they practiced their art with blank walls and unstained trains as their canvases. When opportunities arose, they painted the whole sides of subway cars and even entire ten-car trains with their elaborate, colorful designs.

They had no illusions their creations would last long. But the opportunity to see their art rolling through the subway was the ultimate payoff for writers like DONDI, LADY PINK, FAB FIVE FREDDY, KASE2, and ZEPHYR. It was outrageous to think thousands of New Yorkers saw their creations each day in one of the richest cities in the world. “If art like this is a crime let god forgive me!” wrote the writer known as LEE of the Fabulous Five crew. They embraced the identity of outlaw artists and admitted the dangers and thrills were part of the appeal. They were on missions to prove they were not only the most imaginative and talented writers in their neighborhood, but the most fearless.

Not surprisingly, NYC officials were not amused. Cops cracked down on writers, and train yards were encircled with new security. At the same time, the art world was catching on that something fresh was happening in the city beyond their fancy uptown galleries. Graffiti-inspired exhibitions popped up, and some writers took the opportunity to commit their passion to canvas instead of granite and steel.

Wild, Hungry, Inspired

Writing's place in Hip Hop culture was cemented by the early 1980s. Early rappers used wild style on their album covers. Writers painted cool kids’ clothes with designs and got paying gigs painting murals. And two movies— Style Wars  and  Wild Style —debuted. The films made the case that a similar hungry, inspired creativity flowed through writing as well as Hip Hop’s music and dance scene.

Today, graffiti-influenced writing styles show up worldwide in graphic design, fashion, and street art. Outlaw artists like Banksy are still out there painting trouble. But the vision, passion, and humor the best of these writers display—legit or not—give people the chance to see the work-a-day world in new ways. They seem to say if we pay attention, we can find beauty, meaning, and art most everywhere we look.

Dan One: Alphabetical Engineer

Writing Terms to Know

The basic vocabulary of  writing graffiti —Hip Hop’s visual art include:

all city  being known for one’s graffiti throughout a city; originally referred to the artwork on subway cars appearing in all five New York City boroughs bite  to steal another writer’s design or style black book  sketchbook used by graffiti writers bombing  to paint many surfaces in an area burner  elaborate, large designs crew  team of writers that often work together gettin’ up  developing one’s reputation or “rep” through writing graffiti graffiti  writing, or drawing on surfaces in public places, usually without permission kings  or  queens  highly respected, experienced writers with most tags piece  short for “masterpiece,” a large, complex graffiti design stencil graffiti  premade designs of paper or cardboard that allow quicker, more exact transmission of images or lettering tag  or  scribble  stylized, but basic graffiti writer’s signature throw up  quick execution writing; generally one color outline and one color filled in toy  inexperienced writer wild style  style of writing that usually involves bold, interlocked letters writer   graffiti artist who has a distinct way they design their letters

Knowledge: A Philosophy of Hip Hop


The 1970s were lean, mean years in sections of New York City. This was especially true in the Bronx and the city’s other low-income areas. Much of the optimism of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement had faded. New York was broke. City officials sliced and diced basic services, school funding, arts education programs, and job training. Life-destroying drugs and crime haunted the streets. Absentee landlords neglected properties until building after building fell into disrepair or went up in flames.

In the face of all that, however, the energy of urban youth refused to shut down. Young people, many of them teens, created new ways of spinning records and dancing. They experimented with new styles of poetry and visual art that revealed their thinking and feelings. Eventually, the elements grooved together into a culture. A name started to stick to it:  Hip Hop .

The Fifth Element

Hip Hop’s fifth element of “knowledge” teaches the Hip Hop community about its identity and ways to express that identity. It places great importance on claiming a stake in one’s own education. “Knowing where YOU come from helps to show YOU where YOU are going,” writes legendary MC KRS-One. “Once you know where you come from you then know what to learn.” (By the way, “KRS” stands for “Knowledge Reigns Supreme.”)

Hip Hop believes that people can take control of their lives through self-knowledge and self-expression. Knowledge influences style and technique and connects its artists under a collective Hip Hop umbrella. It engages the world through Hip Hop’s history, values, and ideas, and adds intellectual muscle to support and inform its music and moves and its poetry and art. Most importantly, it allows for a shared experience against an uncertain world.

Bambaataa Brings It

Afrika Bambaataa deserves much credit for putting this concept of knowledge into word and action. Bambaataa is a pioneering DJ and MC from the Bronx. A one-time teen leader of a gang, Bambaataa had universal respect and a powerful ability to make peace with and between enemies. His legendary music and dance parties brought together rivals to party in peace. “Free jam!” his flyers announced. “Come one come all, leave your colors at home! Come in peace and unity.”

The young Bambaataa was also a devoted student of history. He absorbed the tactics and strategies of historical leaders—from the French emperor Napoleon to the South African chieftain and military commander Shaka Zulu. He grasped the power of music as a strategy for clearing barriers that divided people, whatever their backgrounds.

By the 1980s, Bambaataa and his large and growing crew had founded the Universal Zulu Nation. Dedicated to Hip Hop values, the organization’s motto is “Peace, Love, Unity, and Having Fun.” They developed “Infinity Lessons”—principles and codes of conduct for living an honorable Hip Hop life. They emphasize community, peace, wisdom, freedom, justice, love, unity, responsibility, respect for others, and respect for self. He put his knowledge into words, and the words radiated around the Bronx, throughout New York, and across America.

Boogie Down Productions - My Philosophy

Knowledge Terms to Know

The basic vocabulary of  knowledge —Hip Hop’s philosophy include:

culture  the behaviors and beliefs of a particular group of people didactic  intended to teach a lesson, especially a moral lesson empowerment  increasing of economic, political, social, educational, gender, or spiritual strength of individuals or communities praxis  process when a theory, custom, or lesson is practiced society  social, economic, and cultural system strategy  plan to reach a desired result worldview  ideas about how the world works

Hip Hop Theater and Literary Arts


“Be warned, this  is  theater—but it’s  Hip Hop  theater,” a loud voice booms before the curtain rises for  Into the Hoods . This show has been blowing away London audiences since 2008. It is an urban re-visioning of the fairy tale-genre, following a pair of school kids into a tough part of town instead of a haunted forest. But as with all fairy tales, not everything or everyone is what they seem. Ultimately the stage blazes with wild style art, DJ voiceovers, beats from multiple musical styles, b-boys and b-girls breaking in high-flying choreography, and fresh takes on familiar characters. (DJ Spinderella or Rap-On-Zel ring a bell?)

More and more, the stage has been welcoming Hip Hop’s elements, energy, and world view. Graffiti writing may splash across the scenery. DJing, rapping, and breaking are likely to take turns in the spotlight. Some shows, like  Into the Hoods , tell their tales mainly through dance and music, while others lay Hip Hop style over more traditional scripts. Hip Hop artists are tackling drama, comedy, and tragedy, and some classic material is getting the Hip Hop makeover. Will Power’s  The Seven , for example, retells the ancient Greek tragedy  Seven Against Thebes  by Aeschylus using a DJ and rapping cast.

Collaboration and Content

Collaboration is a core ingredient for most Hip Hop theater groups. In the tradition of the culture, producers, directors, and playwrights stress input and participation by stakeholders—the very people the play is intended to speak to and entertain. Long-time Hip Hop theater writer/actor/director Danny Hoch says it this way: “Hip-hop theatre… must be  by ,  about  and  for  the hip-hop generation, participants in hip-hop culture, or both.”

This collaborative process clearly informs the content in Hip Hop plays and musicals. Plots often tackle current social issues, especially as they relate to urban communities, with characters exploring the strengths and limits of activism and empowerment. Questions of identity are often front and center, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and anything regarded as “different.” The struggle between the individual and society is a central theme as characters seek to create meaning in their lives while struggling to claim their place in the world.

Hip Hop in Prose and Poetry

MCs tell complex stories in rhythm and rhyme. Rappers write and polish their lyrics before delivering them in raps. The secret is out: Hip Hop poets love words. “The toughest, coolest, most dangerous-seeming MCs are, at heart, basically just enormous language dorks,” cracks music critic Sam Anderson. “They love puns and rhymes and slang and extended metaphors ….” These skills can translate smoothly into literary forms—short stories, novels, scripts, poetry, and comic book-style graphic novels. Some works relate the gritty realities of poverty or inner-city living; others find the humor there and wherever; all describe trying to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Rapped aloud or published on paper, Hip Hop-influenced literary forms have roots in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. BAM inspired a generation of African American, Latino, and feminist writers, including Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, the Last Poets, and many others, to share stories and views often overlooked or outright rejected by mainstream America. Along the way, spoken word—a forerunner of rap—injected energy into performance. Through poetry slams, it has developed its own fans with its forceful, fun wordplay.

As in theater, the literary world is making more space for Hip Hop style, subjects, and themes. Scholars Andrew DuBois and Adam Bradley recently edited and published  The Anthology of Rap , a huge collection of lyrics. Says Bradley: “[R]appers are perhaps our greatest public poets, extending a tradition of lyricism that spans continents and stretches back thousands of years… They expand our understanding of human experience by telling stories we might not otherwise hear.”

Some Hip Hop-savvy teachers are bringing the best of Hip Hop literature into their classrooms. And writers for kids, teens, and young adults are telling Hip Hop tales in books like  Think Again  by Doug E. Fresh, Debbie Allen’s  Brothers of the Knight , and the  Hip-Hop Kidz  series by Jasmine Bellar.

Theater and Literary Terms to Know

The basic vocabulary of  Hip Hop theater and literary arts  include:

choreography  arrangement of dance moves collaboration  working together content  subject or information genre  category of literature, such as fairy tales or historic fiction lyricism  poetic or musical style metaphor  symbolic figure of speech scenery  backdrop for a theater production stakeholder  someone who shares interest or responsibility

All The Way Live - Hip Hop Connections

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Sean McCollum

Lisa Resnick

October 30, 2019

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research paper on hip hop culture

Hip Hop Culture and Music Research Paper

Introduction to hip hop culture.

Hip hop is a subculture that has spread rapidly over the past 30 years, pioneered by the DJ Kool Herc who introduced hip hop music in the Bronx, New York City, from where it has spread across the globe to listeners and performers, gathering a solid fan base along the way. There are four primary elements of hip-hop culture: MCing, DJing, graffiti, and breakdancing. Other secondary elements of this culture are beatboxing, hip hop fashion, and hip hop slang.

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DJing existed before hip hop did, but hip hop’s contribution to the concept of DJing was significant because it gave it greater scope and more techniques than it previously had. Kool DJ Herc was the first hip hop DJ as he separated “breaks” in albums, i.e. the part which emphasized the beat, and created hip hop this way. Following his techniques, other DJs such as Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizard Theodore, and Grandmaster Caz also introduced new elements such as scratching.

Scratching is a technique which in hip hop culture is used to gauge the expertise of a DJ, as he is expected to produce new sounds simply by moving a record back and forth while it is playing on a turntable and at the same time manipulating with the crossfader on a DJ mixer. DJ Grandmaster Flash described scratching in Toop (1991, p.65) as “ nothing but the back-cueing that you hear in your ear before you push it [the recorded sound] out to the crowd.”

As convention dictates, DJs usually use two turntables at the same time, which are connected to many other electronic musical tools and equipment such as a DJ mixer, an amplifier, and speakers. The DJ then produces distinctive sounds by manipulating and working tricks on the two albums playing simultaneously such as isolating breaks or scratching. Hence the two songs then become one unique sound.

When hip hop first originated, the DJs were very popular, and considered the stars of hip hop, but since 1978 MCs have taken over this status largely due to the contribution of Melle Mel, who was part of the crew of DJ Grandmaster Flash (Rosen, 2007).

Nevertheless, in recent times there have been a number of noteworthy DJs who have gained a massive following. Popular names include, aside from the above mentioned, Mr. Magic, DJ Premier, DJ Scratch, DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Scott La Rock, DJ Pete Rock, DJ Muggs, DJ Clue, and DJ Q-Bert. The popularity of turntablism, described as “A phonograph in the hands of a ‘hip-hop/scratch’ artist who plays a record like an electronic washboard with a phonographic needle as a plectrum, produces sounds which are unique and not reproduced – the record player becomes a musical instrument” (Cox & Warner, 2004), has led to a renewed focus on the skills of the DJ.


MCing is also known as Emceeing, Rapping, Spitting, Rhyme spitting, and even simply as Rhyming. This is one of the most fundamental aspects of hip-hop culture in general and hip-hop music in particular. In the 1960s, the word rap was present in the African American English dialect and it meant “to converse”. Soon after, it became associated with the musical style which has originated with the West African folk poets who were known as griots. Rapping is accompanied by a beat and can be delivered even without one, simply as rhythmic verses (Toop, 2000).

Graffiti is another cultural pillar of hip hop. In the 1960s it was used as a tool of expression by people wishing to make a political statement, such as activists, as well as by street gangs to ensure that their territory is well-marked. Around the late 1960s then, Philadelphia graffiti writers Top Cat, Cool Earl, and Cornbread started to produce their signatures on graffiti, from where the movement spread to New York City.

Raki 183 and Taki 168, one of the founders of graffiti in New York would write their nickname and street number, and put their graffiti all over a train, where it was carried by subway all over the city. Writers from the Bronx started by using bubble lettering, but the art of graffiti was eventually characterized by the elaborate Brooklyn style referred to by Tracy 168 as “wildstyle.” In later years, Dondi, Futura 2000, Daze, Blade, Zephyr, Crash, and Lady Pink became popular graffiti artists (Toop, 2000).

Graffiti and hip-hop culture are closely related because the early graffiti artists were avid practitioners of other elements of hip hop as well, and graffiti had a definite presence in areas where other cultural aspects of hip hop were slowly emerging. In the same way that breakdancing is termed the physical expression of rap music, graffiti is viewed as the visual expression of the same. Hip hop graffiti gained mainstream acclaim through the book Subway Art (Copper & Chalfant, 1984) and the TV show ‘Style Wars’, first shown in 1984.

Breakdancing / BBoying

Breakdance is a central part of hip hop culture and is one of the initial forms of hip hop dance, where dancers show off their dance skills in a form of a contest, without there being any physical contact between the adversaries. It is also known as B-boying (or B-girling for women) or breaking. While b-boying is often associated with other funk dancing styles which emerged around the same period, i.e. the 1960s, in California, such as “popping”, “ticking” and “boogaloo”, it is distinct from these. It originated in the South Bronx similar to other aspects of hip hop (Palmer, 1981).

It was at DJ Kool Herc’s parties that the term B-boy first came into being because the dancers at these parties would always get in front of the audience at the break section of the song, and dance their very best moves in an entirely unique and frenetic way. The documentary “The Freshest Kids”, the fictional film “Beat Street” and the TV program “Style Wars” have all documented this style, which is one of the most crucial elements of hip hop culture.

In the 1980s, b-boying was very common and popular among people and it was not unusual to see a group of people with radio, on a sidewalk or playground, showing off their skills to an audience. Today hip hop as a dance form is gaining popularity and while Bboying was the starting point for hip hop dance, the latter has now evolved to include a larger number of moves than just the breaking ones. Hip hop dance differs from most other dance forms because it has little structure if any at all, and very few rules regarding steps or positions (Chang, 2005).

Beatboxing is regarded by many as the fifth element of hip hop, said to be the vocal expression of the culture. Beatboxing refers to the art of creating rhythms, melodies, and beats by simply using the human mouth, and it got its name from the very initial drum machines, which were called beatboxes. It is a method of creating hip-hop music and at times is accompanied by rapping. In the 80s, beatboxing was a very popular art form and artists such as Darren “Buffy, the Human Beat Box” Robinson and Biz Markie were famous for their beatboxing skills. Then in the late 80s, its popularity started decreasing but towards the turn of the 21 st century, the release of Rahzel’s “Make the Music 2000” contributed to the renewed taste for this form of hip hop expression (Chang, 2005).

Today hip hop has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry and while the elements above might form its core, there are various other aspects that also have a significant role in defining its scope. Hip hop today is a genuine political and cultural movement, according to KRS-ONE, an important figure in the hip hop community and founder of the Temple of Hiphop, which includes the elements mentioned above, as well as hip hop fashion, hip hop slang, street knowledge, and street entrepreneurship. The Temple of Hip Hop is a Ministry, Archive, School, and Society with the goal to maintain as well as promote hip hop culture (The Temple of Hip Hop).

History of Hip Hop

Throughout American history, the African American community has always had some version of verbal acrobatics or chanting which involves rhymes. Some of these rhymes have been called various names such as Shining of the Titanic, Signifying, Testifying, prison ‘jail house’, and double Dutch jump rope.

The Bronx in New York City is the place where the roots of hip hop can be found, particularly in the large block parties held in NYC in the 1970s. Back in the 1930s, a significant number of the residents of Harlem belonged to the West Indies and the block parties of the 1980s reflected this association by being astonishingly similar to Jamaican parties.

These celebrations were large, held outdoors, where music was loud and came from expensive stereos, and people would start conversing with lyrics or engage in toasting, which refers to talking or chanting over a rhythm or a beat. As the RM Hip Hop Magazine states, “in the South Bronx, the half speaking, half singing the rhythmic street talk of ‘rapping’ grew into the hugely successful cultural force known as Hip Hop.” Jamaican immigrants such as DJ Kool Herc and poets who spoke rather than sang lyrics or poetry such as Gil Scott-Heron were the leading innovators in early hip hop.

As DJs competed with each other and isolated percussion breaks, which dancers loved to show their best moves on, MCs started chanting or talking over the beats, this was the beginning of rap music. These percussion breaks which were isolated and lengthened also led to the evolution of a similar style in Jamaica known as dub. Nevertheless, rap music of this time consisted of both, good quality material by experts, as well as mediocre or poor quality material hurriedly put together in order to earn a quick buck. As Lil Rodney Cee of Funky Four Plus One (which was famous because it was the first Hip Hop group from the Bronx to have gotten a recording deal) put it, Cowboy of Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five is regarded as “the first MC that I know of…He was the first MC to talk about the DJ”.

The first few rap songs ever recorded include “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” by Fatback Band and “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, which was a massive hit as it attained the 36 th spot on the Billboard charts (Toop, 1991).

Rap became very popular because it just like the verbal/rhyme jousting and games that had been popular in the African American community, it gave the New York youth a chance and a medium to freely express themselves. Also, an important reason why rap caught on was that it was accessible for everyone regardless of how much money or resources they had. It was a verbal skill, which anyone who was interested in could practice and perfect the art of.

It also became popular because they were no rules or restrictions, and hence, there were unlimited challenges to be original and produce new, unique rhymes to go with the beat of the music. The ideal end goal was to be regarded as ‘def or good by peers. Rap also allowed people to stay true to themselves, as it allowed one to adapt the technique to their own personality, and then their personality would reflect in their rhyme and beat. Hence it definitely served as a medium of expression, which played a major role in its popularity (Chang, 2007).

Incidentally, all of the four basic elements of hip hop described earlier had this factor in common. Their popularity was in large part attributed to their serving as a form of self-expression, the driving force behind them being people’s need to be seen and heard.

D (n.d) discusses how at the time before hip hop originated, New York’s Black radio station started to change their positioning in order to cater to an older, more affluent, and primarily whiter audience. Due to this, young people were left with not much to listen to especially when “bubble gum and Europeanized versions of disco music began to hit the airwaves.” This was because many people perceived this style of music to lack a certain personality and soul, and seemed mechanic and formulaic.

In the time before hip hop music evolved, like Afrika Bambaataa (a DJ, community leader in the Bronx, as well a pioneering force in the early development of Hip Hop throughout the 1970s) said, that New York’s relationship with funk music weakened. Black radio started patronizing “established rock acts doing generic-sounding disco tunes” while Black artists such as George Clinton and James Brown were nowhere to be found on the airwaves. At this time, a void was created in music and hip hop emerged to fill this gap. Simply put, “hip hop was a direct response to the watered-down, Europeanized, disco music that permeated the airwaves.”

Hip Hop Fashion

Hip Hop fashion refers to a particularly unique style of dress which, similar to other elements of hip hop culture, originated with the Black and Latino youth living in the Bronx, and it was later developed further as it was influenced by the hip hop culture of Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and the South among other areas. The fashion is very reflective of the attitude that the hip hop culture emanates, and while it may have as its founders the African American youth, today it has been embraced by all ethnicities and nationalities (Chang, 2005).

When fashion giants such as Adidas, Nike, and Kangol started producing styles and clothes in the 1980s associated with the hip hop scene, this fashion truly became a style of its own. In this decade, hip hop fashion was characterized by tracksuits of bold colors, jackets made of leather or sheepskin, Dr. Martens boots and sneakers, large eyeglasses, and name belts. Heavy jewelry was also very popular and to this day it is a defining element of hip hop fashion, especially gold necklaces and rings, as they are a sign of prestige and wealth (Chang, 2005).

In the late 1980s and 1990s, traditional African clothing, hairstyles, etc. were a dominant part of hip hop fashion and hip hop artists promoted blousy pants, hats made of kente cloth, Africa chains, and dreadlocks. Gangsta rap, which is one of the genres of hip hop music and “reflects the violent lifestyles of some inner-city youths” (Adaso, n.d) was one of the most dominating influences on hip hop fashion as the styles of prison inmates and street gangsters became popular. Baggy pants which were worn low and without a belt, black ink tattoos, bandanas, and a “homeboy” mentality were all elements that had been taken on by the African American at first and then had spread to the hip hop community in general.

Hip hop as a culture comprises a lot more than just hip hop music or fashion. It is an attitude that has been taken by global media companies, who have partnered with fashion giants, beverage brands, and sports franchises to package it into a complete lifestyle. But as Chang (2007) points out, “the most interesting element driving hip-hop’s global appeal is its cultural and political resonance.” While hip hop may have proved to be an “astonishing moneymaker”, it has also proved to be a powerful medium of youth expression and empowerment. And therein lies its true strength. Young people who find themselves on the outside looking in have chosen this as their voice, and this is what differentiates hip hop from other forms of popular cultures in recent times.

What is also interesting is that these young people have been, more often than not, African American. According to Chang (2007), “Whereas record labels in the 1950s, for example, used personalities like Elvis Presley and Boone to soften rock-and-roll’s edges, rap music has remained, by and large, a defiantly “black” musical form.”

While other ethnicities and nationalities have adopted rap and other elements of hip hop culture, what this means is that hip hop in its most authentic way is very much connected to the prevalent social and political realities. Hip hop culture has become what it is today because it is the voice of the streets, regardless of where in the world these streets exist. It gave the powerless a voice, and connected with them in a way that could not have been predicted and could definitely not have been controlled.

Adaso, Henry. “ Gangsta Rap “. About. 2008. Web.

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

Chang, Jeff. “It’s a Hip Hop World. Foreign Policy”. 2007. 58-65.

Copper, Martha & Chalfant, Henry. Subway Art. Thames & Hudson, 1984.

Cox, Christopher & Warner, Daniel. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2004.

D, Davey. The History of Hip Hop . Web.

Palmer, Robert. “ Pop: The Sugar Hill Gang “. The New York Times. 1981. Web.

Rm Hip Hop Magazine 1986. “The Roots of Hip Hop.” Web.

Rosen, Jody. A Rolling Shout-Out to Hip-Hop History. The New York Times. 2006. Web.

The Temple of Hip Hop. Web.

Toop, David. Rap Attack, 3rd ed., London: Serpent’s Tail, 2000.

Toop, David. Rap Attack II: African Rap to Global Hip Hop. New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1991.

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Research Paper on Hip-Hop

Hip hop is said to have originated in African American and Latino-American communities during the 1970s in New York City, as a subculture music. It was very popular specifically within the Bronx. The term itself is usually referred to as a style of music, however in its broader sense hip hop culture is defined by the four elements of rapping, DJing, hip hop dance and graffiti.

The subculture started from the parties at the blocks thrown by DJ Kool Herc at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where Herc would take samples of the records and mix them with his own shouts to the crowd and dancers. They were really popular among African-American and Latino youths. Kool Herc is known as the ‘father’ of the hip hop art form. DJ Afrika Bambaataa, the follower of Kool Herc, who comes from the hip-hop collective Zulu Nation, postulated the four principles of hip hop culture: MCing, DJing, B-boying and graffiti. Since its start in the South Bronx, the popularity of the hip hop culture has spread to both urban and suburban societies all over the world. Hip hop music first came to life with Kool Herc and the disc jockeys of that time. They were producing rhythmic beats by looping breaks (small portions of songs emphasizing a percussive pattern) on two turntables, usually known as sampling. This was later followed by the so-called “rap” – a rhythmic style of chanting or poetry presented in 16 bar measures or time frames, and beatboxing, a vocal technique that imitates percussive elements of the music and various technical effects of hip hop DJs. New music brought new style – specific types of closing arose together with the hip hop. As everything in this world, the style has been evolving together with the culture during all the times of its existence. When the hip hop music has been introduced to the public, it faced a lot of critique. Aggressive, sometimes even compromising, lyrics arose a lot of public discontent. However, the representatives of hip hop have always refuted all the accusations by saying that their music bears a message of piece, and the only thing they do is the depiction of the world we all live in. The hip hop culture has always faced some kind of gang influence. A lot of hip hop band heads have been gang leaders.

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